'Golden Age of Jazz' Photographer Bill Gottlieb

Photographer Bill Gottlieb is flanked by portraits of Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, which the U.S. Postal Service featured in a 1994 series of stamps commemorating jazz performers. The Holiday photo is perhaps the most reproduced among Gottlieb's works.
Photographer Bill Gottlieb is flanked by portraits of Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, which the U.S. Postal Service featured in a 1994 series of stamps commemorating jazz performers. The Holiday photo is perhaps the most reproduced among Gottlieb's works. (By Steve Gottlieb)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Bill Gottlieb, 89, a self-taught jazz photographer who took some of the most indelible images of the top musicians bridging the swing and bebop jazz eras, died April 23 at his home in Great Neck, N.Y., after a stroke.

Mr. Gottlieb's photography was initially an afterthought, mere visual accompaniment to his regular work as a jazz scribe for The Washington Post and the influential music magazine Down Beat during the 1940s.

After reading manuals for his Speed Graphic press camera, Mr. Gottlieb took hundreds of witty, haunting and altogether unforgettable portraits of musicians such as Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald. He once captured Gillespie making goo-goo eyes at Fitzgerald during a performance.

Perhaps his most reproduced picture captured singer Billie Holiday in 1947 seemingly pouring her soul into a microphone.

Mr. Gottlieb once recalled: "She was at her most beautiful at that particular time, which was not too long after she had come out of prison on a drug charge. She couldn't get any drugs or alcohol while she was incarcerated. She lost weight and came out looking gorgeous, and her voice was I think at its peak.

"I was fortunate enough to have spent time with her during that period, and I caught this close-up of her in a way that you could really see the anguish that must have been coming out of her throat."

Mr. Gottlieb left the business for a long career as a children's book author and producer of educational film strips. The publication in 1979 of his book "The Golden Age of Jazz" led to a much-ballyhooed reappraisal of his photography.

Critics found that he easily ranked with Gjon Mili and Herman Leonard as one of the finest photographic interpreters of the personalities behind the music. New Yorker magazine jazz writer Whitney Balliett noted: "Gottlieb stopped photographing jazz musicians in 1948. No one has surpassed him yet."

William Paul Gottlieb was born in New York on Jan. 28, 1917. He was raised in Bound Brook, N.J., where his father operated a lumber business.

He was never especially musical, and his crucial encounter with jazz occurred during his sophomore year at Lehigh University. He contracted trichinosis from eating undercooked pork at his apparently unkosher Jewish fraternity, and during recovery a friend lent him a large stash of jazz records. He was smitten.

After graduation in 1938, he landed a job he soon grew to detest in the advertising department of The Post. One day, he asked the Sunday news editor if he could create a jazz column. This went well for two weeks.

"I got into photography because The Post was stingy and wouldn't pay photographers to cover my 11 o'clock concerts," he later told the New York Times. "So I made a deal with the staff photographers that if I bought the same camera they had, they'd teach me to use it."


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